Cash and change

Sister of inmate suicide victim hopes $1 million settlement helps reform county main jail

A guard checks an inmate in the county jail’s psychiatric unit, where a spate of suicides led to several reforms and a $1 million settlement with three victims’ families.

A guard checks an inmate in the county jail’s psychiatric unit, where a spate of suicides led to several reforms and a $1 million settlement with three victims’ families.

SN&R Photo By Larry Dalton

It never was about money for Tonya Summers.

The $1 million settlement finalized recently between the Sheriff’s Department, University of California regents and the families of three inmates who committed suicide at the Sacramento County main jail is significant to Tonya only in its ability to shape change.

“The whole reason for the lawsuit wasn’t to get money,” said Tonya, whose brother, Jake Summers, hung himself on February 8, 2002. “It was to give the jail some accountability because it didn’t seem they were taking it seriously. Money talks. The people who died belonged to families that loved them.”

UC Davis is named in the suit because it oversees the delivery of mental-health services in the jail, under an entity known as Jail Psychiatric Services, or JPS. The Sheriff’s Department, which runs the jail, is named because it is accused of negligence and indifference to the medical and psychological needs of its inmates.

According to court documents, Jake Summers was awaiting trial on “strong-arm robbery” charges for allegedly stealing a tip jar from a Jamba Juice restaurant. After a particularly stressful day in court, he was returned to his cell, alone, and left unchecked for the remainder of the day. An inmate worker found Jake’s body at 5:45 p.m., in a state indicating he had been dead for some time before his body had been discovered. Summers had hung himself from a bunk hole in the top bunk of his cell, using a torn-up sheet as a ligature. Prior to his death, he had scrawled a suicide note on his cell’s wall.

Court documents state that the deputy on duty at the time had falsified entries in the cell check log, a practice known as “pencil whipping,” and that Summers had not been checked on all day.

Today, cell checks are accomplished even when the jail is understaffed and there’s only one deputy on the floor, according to Captain Scott Jones, the main jail’s commander, who added deputies are penalized if caught falsifying records.

“Cell checks absolutely get done,” said Jones. “Even if we have to draw someone from another floor to do it, which happens. Cell checks aren’t the only suicide-prevention factor, but they’re one of them. It’s a different climate now.”

Mohammed Reza Abdollahi committed suicide on March 26, 2002, three days after his incarceration for possession and use of drugs. A heroin addict, Abdollahi pressed his emergency call button and threatened to commit suicide unless he could see a doctor and get medication for his withdrawals. Medical staff informed custody staff that Abdollahi was already receiving such medication and to call if he was still complaining of suicidal thoughts. Later that evening, according to court documents, a deputy entered the cell to find Abdollahi with a torn piece of sheet around his neck, which he removed and replaced with a blanket. The deputy did not notify JPS of this development. Hours later, during another cell check, another deputy found Abdollahi hanging from the bottom of the top bunk—the blanket having been torn into strips to use as a ligature.

Finally, Jose Elizar Arambula hung himself on July 24, 2003, following a psychotic break. Court documents reveal that in March and April of 2003, JPS psychiatrists conducted evaluations of Arambula. They noted his history of suicide attempts and delusions and found that Arambula was psychotic. Antipsychotic medication for Arambula was continued at a low dosage.

On the day of his death, Arambula flooded his cell and engaged in erratic behavior, including having animated conversations with himself and banging his head into a sliding glass door, court documents state. JPS staff was contacted by custodial staff to evaluate Arambula. An unlicensed social worker interviewed Arambula for about 10 minutes and told custody staff that there was no need for any precautions and indicated that Arambula was simply “whiny.” Arambula was then placed back in his cell where he remained for about four hours until he was found hanging by a sheet from a fire sprinkler.

Attorney Stewart Katz, representing the three families, said, “UC Davis had been told there was a problem. This wasn’t like Columbus discovers America. Everyone knew there was a problem.”

Representatives for UC Davis would not comment on the suit, only to say that it no longer uses unlicensed social workers to conduct mental-health evaluations, according to AnnMarie Boylan, chief of Correctional Health Services for the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department. Nor would the university confirm whether the former director of JPS and the unlicensed social worker, both named in the suit, still have their jobs.

“Nothing about the county’s decision to settle these cases should be construed as evidence of any wrongdoing on the part of the Sheriff’s Department or its staff,” Sheriff John McGinness said in an interview with SN&R. “It represents events that took place some time back. It’s always a risk to engage in any conduct that suggests that the county has deep pockets, but in this case I think it’s a business decision that makes sense, given the opportunity to settle it.”

Still, the aggressive modifications in the structural make-up of the jail, as well as the removal of physical materials like sheets and long socks, making it more difficult for inmates to hang themselves, as well as intensifying the suicide prevention training for both custodial officers and JPS staff stand as an acknowledgement that changes had to be made, McGinness said.

Until recently, the jail had gone 19 months without a suicide. That streak was broken October 25, 2007 when Jamie Wayne Wilson, 28, hung himself using a torn T-shirt, following a court appearance the previous day during which he tried to escape.

“He had been asked if he wanted to see someone from psych due to his desperate attempt to get out of custody and whether he was suicidal and he said ‘no’ to both,” said Captain Jones.

In custody since September 20, Wilson was suspected of robbing a Sacramento County credit union branch once and a Woodland bank twice.

“A suicide is always a blow,” Jones said, “And my concern was the precedential value of the suicide on other inmates. But we’ve also had more than 14 attempts that we’ve thwarted, this year.”

Tonya Summers did not join in the lawsuit, but her mother was awarded $100,000. Arambula’s parents received $50,000, Arambula’s sons will each receive $100,000 and Katz, along with the three attorneys who assisted him, will receive $500,000. Abdollahi’s son will receive $150,000.

“I hope the lawsuit made a difference,” Tonya Summers said. “I don’t want to trash talk the jail. I just hope changes were made.”